National Football League (NFL) players are reportedly traveling abroad to search for novel stem cell treatments that can help accelerate their recovery from injuries, according to a paper recently published by Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. Even though the article notes that the practice is not common, and most NFL players continue to be treated in the United States with approved treatments, the situation is indeed a reality.
The release was part of the 2014 World Stem Cell Report, a supplement published by the Stem Cells journal, and was officially presented at the 2014 World Stem Cell Summit that took place between December 3 – 5 in San Antonio. The researchers found that several NFL players have traveled abroad to seek unapproved stem cell therapies that are unavailable in the US, highlighting that the players may not be aware of the risks they are taking.
“With the rise of new and unproven stem cell treatments, the NFL faces a daunting task of trying to better understand and regulate the use of these therapies in order to protect the health of its players,” stated a co-author of the paper, Kirstin Matthews, who is a Baker Institute fellow in science and technology policy and an expert on ethical and policy issues related to biomedical research and development. Maude Rowland Cuchiara, who is a Baker Institute scholar for science and technology policy, co-authored the paper as well.
These “stem cell tourists,” as the authors call them, are people who travel every year to visit one of more than 700 stem cell clinics all over the world. Patients look for treatment for different conditions, most often for diseases that have no cure or for which there are limited treatments options, such as autism, multiple sclerosis, or paralysis.
Stem cell therapy for orthopedic therapeutics is gaining attention in the United States, particularly among elite athletes in the NFL. The report also demonstrated that players are even willing to publicly share stories of their remarkable recoveries, encouraging more players to explore the “stem cell tourism” option. Since 2009, 12 players have openly said that they had been treated with unapproved stem cell therapies abroad.
“The online data on NFL players and the clinics where they obtained treatment suggest that players may be unaware of the risks they are taking,” reported Matthews. “Furthermore, players who are official spokespersons for these clinics could influence others to view the therapies as safe and effective despite the lack of scientific research to support these claims.”
In addition, the authors demonstrated that in the United States, the stem cell treatments that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have thus far passed on are rarely so dangerous that they can cause severe side effects; typically, the reason why the FDA has passed on these treatments is that they have been found to have little to no appreciable therapeutic benefits.
The authors recommended that the NFL focus more on athletes’ treatments to better support them in order to avoid stem cell treatment abroad and ensure their safety. “This could be organized similarly to the NFL investigations on the effects of concussions and traumatic brain injuries,” Matthews said. In addition, the researchers suggested that the league should invest more in research on stem cell therapies and evaluating the safety and success of previous studies.
Another proposal in the report was the creation of an independent committee of medical professionals to advise the NFL on unproven stem cell treatments and to ascertain other new and controversial medical interventions.